Le Mans Champagne StoryHide Text
Sometimes It Just Flows
By Lewis Franck
No Sport Beats Auto Racing when it comes to throwing a victory party.
You can have the NFL in December. The games usually are played about 100 yards south of the North Pole, and what happens to the winning coach after a big game? He gets an ice-cold Gatorade shower – probably not his idea of a good time.
Auto racers, on the other hand, have this celebration thing mastered. After sweating it out in a fire retardant suit and a steamy cockpit for a couple of hours, they let loose by spraying bottles of expensive champagne at each other. The spraying, of course, comes after the racers have taken a few swigs of the precious grape.
Bet you thought this tradition was as old as the sport itself, and that it probably was started by some mustachioed driver named Pierre who was wearing a flowing, white scarf. Well the setting was France, but the tradition is relatively new and was initiated by an American. In 1967 Daniel Sexton Gurney, one of the greatest American drivers ever, first let the champagne fly.
Back then, the big news was the battle between the powerful Fords and the sophisticated Ferraris in the 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race. "It was a magical time," says the 65-year-old Gurney whose California surfer looks are still intact. "I think that was one of the great eras for Le Mans".
"The fact that a bunch of Yanks, along with Ford Motor Co., were officially coming to the Le Mans 24-hour race was a high-water mark. Ferrari had put forth a real effort to blow them back across the Atlantic if they could."
A squadron of six Fords was assembled to knock the Italian team off its throne. Gurney was teamed with A.J. Foyt, who was better known as an oval-track master than a road racer, and they garnered no respect from their teammates. In fact, the duo was nicknamed "Chalk and Cheese." "I think A.J. and I were voted the least likely to succeed," Gurney says.
In the end, however, they were the last Ford remaining in the race, and they toppled the fabled Ferraris with a record average speed of 136 mph. Pandemonium broke out as the winners were ushered to a special, raised platform to receive their trophy.
"Mr. Henry Ford was up there with his wife and entourage, and below was a sea of lenses. Everyone sensed it was a particularly special victory," Gurney says. "You get one of these big bottles of champagne, and I thought, "This is so terrific, there's something I could do. How about sharing it with the photographers? They probably wouldn't mind if they had a taste, a little part of the moment."
"I was beyond caring, and I just got caught up in the moment. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments where things turned out to be right. You don't re-create those moments, but a hard-fought victory needs something."
Inspired, Gurney shook the bottle and let the gusher flow – and a new tradition was born.
The Le Mans victory came eight days before Gurney won Formula One's Belgian Grand Prix in a car produced by his company, All American Racers. The two wins marked one of the most remarkable stretches in the history of auto racing.